Jane Horan: Meaningful careers matter more than flexible work for women leaders

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In 2012, Forbes magazine announced, ‘’Entrepreneurship is the new feminism.” The headline was likely in response to the increasing number of women leaving corporate roles. Alarmingly, US and Australia labour research also indicates that women joining the workforce or staying in corporate roles is on the decline. With all the focus today on diversity and inclusion, why is that so?

Researching for my book on women leaders across Asia Pacific, I uncovered fascinating insights of diversity, inclusion, leadership and careers.  I started to see visible cracks in the one-size-fits all approach to leadership development, talent management, and diversity programs. These well intended programs are based on assumptions, and misaligned with individual needs.

Many leadership development programmes for women assumes they need to “fit” into the organisation, talk, walk and embrace that unique corporate culture. They don’t. The leadership programme of the future will be a pastiche, centred more on individual strengths than training them to speak an internal corporate language. Leaders within MNC’s will not all look or communicate alike. The standard North American centralized flexible work policy needs a rethink, as it often ignores a growing multicultural work force and individual employee life cycle transitions.

What can be done to make a difference? Recognizing the individual, understanding why women leave, and intervening early.

I have spoken at women’s conferences in the United States, Australia, Japan, Czech Republic, Singapore and Hong Kong, and always ask the audience, ‘Why do women leave organisations?

A few mention lack of flexible work or ‘the boss’ but most respond with, ‘’No career path.”

According to LinkedIn’s global survey, 51% of women face career challenges, citing lack of a career path or too little development. Engagement surveys by Aon Hewitt, Gallup and Cornerstone all support this premise. There is a plethora of research linking engagement to business performance, but few organisations hear the real needs of employees.

According to Cornerstone, the estimated cost of employee turnover in the US is a staggering US$2 trillion dollars. What is it that motivates women (and men) to stay? One area Cornerstone research points to is seeing a career path or experiencing career growth.

In my book, How Asian Women Lead: Lessons for Global Corporations, women placed more significance on “meaningful careers” than career growth.  For many, a meaningful career took precedence over flexible work. Women leaders I interviewed said, “Forget work life balance, it is all about integrating work and life. The head of Human Resources for a hi-tech start up in Hong Kong told me, ‘’It’s not about flexibility, but it is about having a career that matters. If we have meaningful careers, we can balance the rest.”

Having career conversations early and frequently has tremendous value. This is a challenge for companies in perpetual reorganising or on-going restructuring. Many Human Resource professionals said that career conversations decrease during a merger and significantly drop off through a restructuring.

At any given time, a quarter of employees are thinking about a job change, increasing during a restructure. The most valuable employee starts looking externally for new opportunities, and before another talented hire walks out the door, it makes imminent sense to have career coaching. There are economic and productivity costs to losing women in decision making roles. McKinsey’s research illustrates the benefits of women in the workforce. For more than 40 years, women account for a quarter of the US GDP and now nearly 80% of consumer spending decisions. Catalyst, a research firm, indicates women control US$12 trillion of global consumer spend.

Six months ago Ms. Liu, a Chinese finance executive, faced a career cross-road, the question many mid-career women ask: should I stay or go?  After 10 years in her role, Ms. Liu had worked for five different leaders. An expert in her field, she was a hi-potential talent and a valuable asset to the function. The firm went through a year-long restructuring, resulting in increased regulatory requirements. Instead of streamlining, this change added more hours to her already packed schedule. Her work days were longer and weekends filled with extended family, (parents, in-laws, grandparents) obligations. As family responsibilities increased, she questioned the benefit of remaining in a career she’d known for years. On the brink of leaving, the firm was prescient enough to hire an executive coach.

Proactive companies recognize when something’s off-track, and intervene before talent departures begin.

One year ago a global energy conglomerate wanted to understand why women were leaving the firm. The organisation had won awards for being a great place to work, offering flexible work and numerous development programs. I interviewed women and men at the firm, which reinforced both a supportive and performance driven culture.  Many believed solid performance equalled career opportunities.

Many of the women (like Ms. Liu) were viewed as high potential but few had been promoted or provided with a career path. Some said, ‘’we do have development conversations but nothing ever happens”, a sentiment heard within many multinationals. Listening to their employees, this energy firm organized a series of career workshops resulting in much more positive conversation, and outcomes. In the following performance cycle, 3 out of 5 women were promoted.

Connecting the research dots with engagement scores demonstrates the need for career conversations early and often.  Career coaching provides numerous benefits for the ambitious, the uncertain, and the frustrated. McKinsey’s recent survey highlights 83% of women in middle management have ambitions to move into leadership positions. The same research indicates the path to the top is uncertain. Some employees are unable to articulate what they want to do, others have concrete career plans but are unable to execute, and a few have plans to start a business.

Working as an executive coach I am often brought in for career transitions. The coaching session often starts with me asking, “What do you want to do?” Followed by a typical response of, ‘’I don’t know.” For those stuck in career limbo, such discussions provide clarity.  For those weighing the opportunity cost of staying or leaving, career coaching absolutely has a positive impact.

There is a solid link between retention and engagement. When organisations go through massive change, this link can be severed.  Rather than doling out a retention bonus, providing a road map of potential career possibilities adds more value. No matter how challenging, career conversations should be central to any change process.

If organisations are genuinely concerned with building inclusive work environments and stopping the brain drain of talented women, listen to the voice of the employee. Women who leave organisations do not leave the workforce completely– most become entrepreneurs. The overarching concern is that many women choosing to leave are in the mid to upper management level, highly educated and experienced.

Instead of putting energy into the wrong interventions, learn from the past. There is no silver bullet, but career conversations convey the emotional engagement and commitment to stay.

Jane Horan, EdD, Author, Speaker, Diversity Expert

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  1. I can definitely relate to this. I am mid-career and working longer hours than I have in the past but I love my job because I believe in what I do. I come home every nigh to have dinner with my husband and kids and log back on after they have gone to bed. I don’t feel like I’m working long hours because I enjoy what I do and feel more relaxed about work too.

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